Thailand’s Chiang Mai – Rose Of The North
Phil Hopkins, Arts & Travel Editor
How young are you Mr Hopkins? It is a question that best sums up the tone of Thailand, a beautiful country where everything begins and ends with one word, ‘respect’.
And it comes as no surprise when our eternally polite guide, Tas, informs us that one of Hollywood’s most iconic films, The King and I, penned by Broadway’s musical maestros, Rodgers and Hammerstein, is rarely if ever screened in this country of 70 million people.
“In those days the King of Siam (aka Yul Brynner) would never have fallen in love with someone from another country (the Prince’s English teacher Miss Anna, aka Deborah Kerr), or below his Royal status. There were also very few Thai people in the movie and Mr Brynner was born in Russia!” The point is made. The movie was disrespectful and without authenticity.
And, with a small bow and joining of the hands in a prayer like gesture, our Buddhist guide urges us forward to the waiting taxi and the 15km drive along the windy mountainous road to the foot of Chiang Mai’s Doi Suthep mountain. “One of our most famous monks urged the people to help him build this road in just 5 months and 22 days so that more Thai people could enjoy the mountain top temple,” he said, his pride almost palpable.
Often referred to as the Rose of the North, Chiang Mai is located 700 km north of Thailand's capital, an 80-minute Bangkok Airways flight out of Suvarnabhumi International Airport and costing just £35 one-way.
Founded in 1296, it is one of the biggest cities outside Bangkok and was capital of the independent Lanna Kingdom until 1558. Its old city area still retains vestiges of walls and moats from its history as a cultural and religious centre, and it is home to hundreds of elaborate Buddhist temples, including one of the most famous, Wat Phra That Doi Suthep, the Temple of the Buddha’s Ashes in the Mountain’.
However, before they can reach the next step of enlightenment, pilgrims must first negotiate the 306 steps of the Naga ‘Dragon-headed-serpent’ Staircase, whilst tourists with a wham bam thank you ma’am photo agenda, or an obesity problem, are invited to use the elevator!
At the top – 3,000 ft above sea level and the city’s high point – the 75p entrance fee is worth every penny and no one will be disappointed. There is a First Aid room for the breathless, a glorious Jack fruit tree and a copper plated chedi – often referred to as a Stupa in English or Pagoda in Chinese – topped by a five-tier gold umbrella and said to contain the partial relics of Lord Buddha. And, on a clear day, you can use the viewing platform to look across the entire city.
“The rice farmers are burning stubble today. That’s what happens between March and May,” confesses our guide, “so it is a bit foggy.” For a moment one must question whether the needs of Chiang Mai’s agricultural sector are in danger of jeopardising the farming community’s journey to Nirvana!
Click, click, click. We capture the moment forever but are unable to post any selfies because the wi-fi is non-existent this close to Buddhist Heaven.
At first viewing you are rendered speechless by the ornate nature of this temple in the mountains and its 134 bells but, as the day passes, and the searing heat draws your energy faster than the Marathon Des Sables, the golden Buddhas of Wat Phra Singh and Wat Chedi Luang temples, start to pass in a blur of gold leaf, burning candles and ancient frescos.
As we cool down in the air-conditioned taxi we pass dozens of trees teeming with yellow blossom. “We call them Chiang Mai’s ‘golden shoulder’” says Tas. “People love them. They are the flower of the King of Thailand and are at their best in Summer between March and July.”
The city’s fleet of red people taxis whizz-around Chiang Mai’s narrow highways with all the dexterity of a Russian gymnast. “Always ask the price in advance before you get on board,” warns Tas, “and if there is a few of you, negotiate a cost for the entire vehicle, they seat up to 12. It is the best way to get to the foot of Doi Suthep mountain and, if alone, you can catch a red taxi outside the city zoo for 80 baht (£2),” he advises.
The city and its residences are almost one and the same with houses and their accompanying greenery often close to the main road, or on a quiet rural path to the rear of busy highways.
“Most of them have a banana tree and many locals still make big cigarettes using their leaves. They last a couple of days,” says Tas. Much cheaper than a pack of Benson and Hedges, I thought!
About an hour outside the city the Thai Elephant Conservation Center (TECC), founded in 1993 under Royal Patronage, cares for more than 50 Asian elephants in a beautiful forest setting, and provides a unique opportunity to meet these glorious animals at close quarters
As Thailand's only government-owned elephant camp – with its own special animal hospital - the TECC costs just £5 for adults and £2.50 for children and is a ‘must see’ in this part of the world.
Nearby, in the town of Lampang, famous for its Victorian-style horse drawn carriages, you can enjoy a ride around the town or take in the famous Indra pottery, well-known for its blue and white and novelty creations.
Driving back to the city, and our vegetarian, alcohol-free hotel, the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort, attention turns to the Chinese who account for a large percentage of the country’s tourists.
“I am from the year of the dog,” says Tas, “probably not the best sign for a woman seeking a good husband.”
“Why?” I ask.
“They go out at night and come home in the morning,” guffaws our guide. That night his wife was taking him out for a birthday meal so she could keep an eye on him. Buddhists have a wonderful sense of humour!
We return to the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort Hotel, in the heart of the city and located perfectly for the bustling street markets and attractions.
It is a glorious colonial-style boutique hotel of just 39 rooms. Owned by a Hindu family it opened in December 2017 and remains true to its ethos offering genuine vegetarian cuisine in an egg and alcohol-free environment. Not even fish makes it to the menu!
And the hotel’s activities are strikingly different. Guests can learn fruit carving, umbrella fan painting, hand-garland making and even engage in a vegetarian cookery class.
The rooms are sumptuous and calming and there is a genuine feeling that staff rapidly get to know you, never failing to greet guests with the utmost courtesy and always remembering their names!
Thailand is a tourist destination and has been for decades, but its lure is in the fact that it has never been tempted to compromise its culture to the needs of ‘in-comers’.
“Locals would not allow a cable car to the top of Doi Suthep mountain,” said our guide, Tas, earlier, “because it would spoil the environment.”
English is spoken, but not widely, and yet there is a charm in getting lost in a culture where, sometimes, only hand gestures and smiles are the common currency.
The Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort Hotel may not serve alcohol and may be the only property of its type in the city, but, rest assured, if you fail to get drunk in your room, then the charm of Chiang Mai will leave you with a pleasant feeling of delirious intoxication.
Travel Tips Thailand
Fully comp travel insurance recommended. Check policy covers motorbikes, diving or adventure pursuits
Passport:- You will need six months validity on your passport to travel to Thailand, as well as two blank pages. On a British or Irish passport, you are visa exempt for 30 days.
Take a travel money card as this will save you money on bank fees. Quickly cancelled if lost or stolen. Try Post Office’s multi-currency card.
The currency used in Thailand is baht. It is a good idea to exchange your money in Thailand as you get a better rate. UK Post Office nearly 39 baht to the £1. In Chiang Mai nearly 43 baht!
Don’t drink tap water. Buy bottled.
Temples – men and women are required to cover shoulders. Men should have over the knee shorts and women a long skirt / sarong
Pack as if you were going to enjoy an excellent English summer!
Take a hat and a light waterproof if there in the rainy season.
Take a plug adapter for your electronic devices……and lots of sun cream!
www.tourismthailand.org – Official site of Thailand Tourism
www.destination-asia.com – The company that set up this trip
www.thailandelephant.org - Thai Elephant Conservation Center
www.awayresorts.com – Prices for the Away Chiang Mai Thapae Resort Hotel
www.bangkokair.com – Internal Flights
www.cibtvisas.co.uk - visas
www.thaiembassyuk.org.uk – travel help
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Thailand’s Chiang Mai – Rose Of The North, 26th April 2018, 14:46 PM